“This is no trivial gesture, Rhaenyra. Dragon’s saddle is one thing, but the Iron Throne is the most dangerous seat in the realm.”
Hot take: the final season of Game of Thrones wasn’t that bad. Sure, things sped up a little fast towards the end and a few characters might have been short-changed on their way out, but it still proved suitably gripping and, ahem, game changing.
Regardless of one’s perspective on the latter seasons, the show became a phenomenon because of good acting, strong character work and detailed worldbuilding – helped of course by some quality source material. The prequel series House of the Dragon embodies the same tenets of character and drama across 10 intricate episodes.
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Those uninitiated to the world of Westeros need not worry about lacking any contextual knowledge when they sit down to watch – a handy opening narration provides the essential details of the show’s setup – but it pays to pay attention. Luckily, this isn’t hard – the show sits in small moments just as much as the large.
Set 200-odd years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon charts the beginning of the end of House Targaryen, who at this point in Westerosi history have been ruling for generations. It’s a been a time of relative peace after their conquest of the realm a century before, although tensions ramp up again as one essential question comes into play: who will succeed the king as the next monarch?
Across multiple mid-season time jumps – something we never witnessed in Game of Thrones – spanning some 20 years, we track the lives of a variety of figures connected to the Targaryen dynasty. The benevolent King Viserys (Paddy Considine) names his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy) heir to the Iron Throne; an unprecedented gesture in a land of kings. Later, he marries Rhaenyra’s childhood friend Alicent (Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke), and doubt is cast over the line of succession when she gives birth to multiple male heirs.
Meanwhile, Viserys’ brother and charming rogue Daemon (Matt Smith) starts a war, wins that war, then murders his wife. Their cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) – who was originally passed over as monarch in favour of her younger, but decidedly more male, cousin as heir – faces pressure from husband Corlys (Steve Toussaint), who remains stubbornly set on seeing his wife sit upon the Iron Throne. Among it all, Rhaenyra and Alicent drift apart both as friends and as members of a slowly fracturing family.
The character list runs long, but the plot stays firmly centred on their pairing. Compared to Game of Thrones, this new story is more contained – rarely straying beyond the bounds of King’s Landing – yet more protracted owing to the time jumps. This sense of length and depth allows for the acting to shine through; there are standout performances from Considine, Smith and D’Arcy in particular. Strangely, though, some characters are shown to age significantly to mark the passage of time – notably Viserys, and any character with a ‘young’ and an ‘adult’ version, while others, such as Daemon, appear not to age at all (beyond the odd haircut).
In many ways, House of the Dragon is as much of a game of thrones as the original show. There’s nudity and incest, cruel depravity and family tragedy. People make oaths then break oaths. All the intrigue and scandal in King’s Landing that made Game of Thrones a hit is still there, as is the acute lens on power and violence. (Things get extremely, perhaps excessively, bloody, including in multiple childbirth scenes.)
House of the Dragon is visually interesting, features some great performances, and retains a lens on deceit and intrigue – all centred around a rift between two friends. Punctuated by numerous shocking moments and building to an engrossing ending, House of the Dragon heralds the return of Westeros to our screens with panache – and it should hopefully prove a little less divisive than its predecessor.
House of the Dragon is streaming on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK.